What to do about all that University Carbon

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Under the heading: "Let's have a heated debate: Universities are about to be given targets for carbon reduction – expect arguments about the best approach", the Guardian recently explored the issue of how UK universities might contribute to the UK's carbon-reduction targets.  Part of this, and amid a rather bewildering array of dates, percentages, tonnages and putative costs, was a comment from Iain Patton of EAUC:

"If students leave with a degree but no grasp of the social, ethical and environmental context into which they will have to live and work, have we not failed them?  No matter how large a university carbon footprint is, it is nothing compared to the impact of its graduates when they leave and enter homes and workplaces. If we miss this, we really do miss the big picture. When at university, we have the responsibility to ensure learners are exposed to knowledge and values which they can take on with them as informed, responsible citizens. Every aspect of our campuses, buildings, teaching and leadership must be oriented to achieve this."

Whilst this integrated (if not holistic) big picture view is commonplace in the context of schools (where the bringing together of issues across 'campus, curriculum and community' is an imperative of the DCSF's sustainable schools initiative, and something of a mantra), it is much less obviously the case in relation to universities where a focus on 'working' (as opposed to 'living', to use Patton's useful distinction), is more common, both generally speaking, and in relation to those degrees, courses, and units that have a bearing on sustainability.  This, given the vocational nature of much degree work (one way or another), is understandable.

The question is, just how far beyond this focus on degree studies (and working) is it sensible and necessary to go when resource (and expertise) is thinly spread, returns might be quite limited, and opportunity costs high?  The rhetoric (and rhetoricians) say it should be a long way, but this is a proposition worthy of some thought.

In terms of 'working', and particularly from the perspective of first employment, what a student learns in relation to sustainability on a degree course, and on associated work placements, is very significant in the development of appropriate understanding, skills, and capability – by far the major source, perhaps.  This seems much less likely to be the case in relation to 'living' where schools may have already had something of a go, and the students (as adults) will have their own exposure from media, family, peers, and, increasingly, the student union and societies – and students may not need to acquire sustainability values from tertiary institutions (which is probably just as well).

Given this, requiring universities to do everything they can in relation to addressing sustainability within the programmes they offer, whilst encouraging them to work with student unions, and possibly others, on wider issues, might seem a sensible way forward.

Posted in: Comment


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  • Hi Bill

    While Universities are not my primary area of interest, I find myself in keen agreement with yourself and Iain.

    This is not least because I have just had a trawl through DCSF's consultation on 'A Carbon Management Strategy for Schools', which only seems to finally realise that learning [and learners] might be a key concern of schools on point 107 [of 125], and that there is such a thing as a curriculum by the time it gets to point 125. Unbelievable? See: http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/consultations/

    I am sure that there are many things that the managers and bursars of educational institutions can get on with, in terms of doing their bit for cutting carbon, but if we forget on the way the one thing their institutions might be really good at, and were certainly set up to do, then we are surely missing a crucial point.